All The Light We Cannot See Book Review

All The Light We Cannot See Book Cover All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Historical Fiction, World War II
05/06/2014
Kindle
531

 

At a Glance:

Marie Laure lives in Paris with her father, the master of locks for the Museum of Natural History. Marie is also blind, but her father has, through a miniature model of their neighborhood, done his best to teach her to utilize her remaining senses to be somewhat independent. They lead a quiet and happy life, until the Nazi's invade France, and Marie and her father are forced to flee to Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast, in hopes of temporarily evading the military.

Werner, an orphaned German boy, displays a talent for mechanics. He is given a place at an elite Nazi Youth Academy, where he is able to develop a radio tracking system. He is conscripted into the military, and uses his radio to track members of the Resistance. Eventually his job leads him to Saint-Malo.

All the Light We Cannot See is the telling of Marie Laure & Werner's stories, how their paths connect, and their experiences during World War II.

My Review:

Hi Guys! I’ve been so excited to share this review with you because All the Light We Cannot See is, by far, my favorite book of 2014! This book was chosen for a monthly book club that I’m in with a few girlfriends. I had heard a lot of good things, and as you all know, historical fiction is my jam, so I felt like this would be right up my alley. I was not disappointed at all! This is one of the most beautiful and unique books I’ve read in a long time. So let’s get into the review.

As my synopsis said, All the Light We Cannot See tells the parallel stories of a French girl (Marie Laure) and a German boy (Werner), their experiences leading up to and throughout the War, and how their paths eventually cross. There is also an ancillary story of a mysterious and beautiful diamond called the Sea of Flames, which has the power to grant immortality to its owner. Unfortunately this immortality comes with a steep cost – while the owner lives forever, those around him or her are cursed:

” ‘The curse was this: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.’ “

So, the first thing I want to say about this book is that is has the most beautiful, detailed, and illustrative writing. I haven’t read anything else by Doerr, so I can’t say if this is just how his writing always is, but wow. Seriously, wow. At every point of the book, I felt like I was there, experiencing everything with these characters. I could actually see the bumblebee frescoes in the Hotel of Bees in Saint Malo. I could smell the seashells in the laboratory of the the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Here’s an excerpt where the author describes the seaside town of Saint-Malo:

“Saint Malo: Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand. We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Bretons next. French if there’s anything left over. In stormy light, its granite glows blue. At the highest tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very center of town. At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea. For three thousand years, this little promontory has known sieges. But never like this.”

Amazing.

One thing I noticed is that this is a very different perspective on World War II. Typically, in the WWII accounts I’ve read, the focus is on the 6 million+ Jews who were systematically murdered through mass genocide. But, what many of us don’t know is that the Nazi’s also targeted non-Jews: Roma (i.e. gypsies), people associated with Resistance efforts, homosexuals, and both physically and mentally disabled people. There is no consensus on how many of these people were also mass-murdered, as many records were destroyed by the Germans, but experts guess around 5 to 6 million.

What I liked about this book is that it shed light on these victims and told their stories. Marie Laure and her family were French citizens, non-Jewish, and were still targeted by the Germans. There were many reasons why Marie Laure & her father had to leave Paris, but I think one was that he was afraid of what the Nazi’s would do to a blind girl, who didn’t conform to their standards for the “ideal race.”

Werner, a German boy, was  not the typical Nazi Youth that we’ve all learned about. He knows he has a talent that is valuable to the Reich and leverages it to improve his situation and his future. But, he is also able to compartmentalize, and not become completely brainwashed by the Nazi indoctrination. As Werner goes through the Nazi Youth Academy, and later his military job, he questioned the things he saw around him. And that was a big theme, especially with Werner’s storyline: questioning whether something is really right even though everyone else is doing it. We know, based on history, that most Germans did not question. They absorbed Hitler’s propaganda, and perpetuated his atrocious acts. And while Werner did not vocally question the Nazi beliefs, he did not let himself get swept up in their frenzy. He knew that, in order to survive, he had to act like he believed, but he didn’t actually have to believe.

All in all, this is an amazing book. I can’t praise it enough. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone. I really think this is a book that could appeal to any reader. At 531 pages, this book may seem a little lengthy, but I felt that I wanted to take my time while reading, to really savor all of the prose. This is not a book you’re going to want to rush through, simply because you’ll miss all of the stunning details and imagery. Give it a chance, I promise you’ll enjoy it!

The Invention of Wings Book Review

The Invention of Wings Book Cover The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
1/07/2014
Hardcover
373

 

At a Glance

Taking place in early nineteenth century Charleston, The Invention of Wings is the story of two women from very different backgrounds and their individual struggles with slavery. Sarah Grimké, an actual abolitionist that inspired this book, is the middle daughter of a wealthy judge and slave-owner in Charleston. On her eleventh birthday, she is given ownership of Hetty "Handful" Grimké, a slave meant to be her personal lady's maid. Readers are taken on a journey across thirty-five years, from Charleston to Philadelphia and back again, learning the true meaning of resilience in the face of devastating adversity.

My Review

I absolutely loved Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, so I had been meaning to read her latest offering for quite a while, but never seemed to get around to it. Then, it was fortuitously chosen as the July pick for a book club I do with a few girlfriends. I had read a lot of positive reviews of the book, and since I’m a fan of historical fiction, I was expecting to enjoy the book. What I did not expect was to become so captivated by the stories of Sarah and Handful Grimké! As soon as I cracked open my copy of The Invention of Wings, I was transported into Sarah and Handful’s worlds.

Sarah is a daughter of one of the prominent families in Charleston’s planter class – basically members of elite society. She is morally against slavery, but she realizes there is not much she can do while living in Charleston, as slavery is very deep-rooted in the South. Sarah has a thirst for knowledge and a longing to be a judge, like her father. However, her intelligence is suppressed because she is a female. Sarah struggles with the hypocrisy displayed by her father and brothers, and realizes that as a woman, she will always be tethered to a man and his needs.

“When I’d espoused my anti-slavery views during those dinner table debates, Father beaming and spurring me on, I’d thought he prized my position. I’d thought he shared my position, but it hit me suddenly that I’d been the collared monkey dancing to his master’s accordian.”

Handful is the slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. She and her mother, Charlotte, are just two of the many slaves that live and work on the Grimké estate. Handful, like Sarah, is also intelligent and ambitious. But, she lives in a very different world from Sarah, and learns to restrain her desires for freedom. Handful becomes adept at “playing the game” so to speak – being able to smile and kowtow to white people, while at the same time cradling her hopes and dreams inside.

“I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me”

Alternatively narrated by Sarah and Handful, the story follows their intersecting lives and complicated relationship from 1803 to 1838. By the laws of the time, Sarah is the master and Handful must obey her every wish and command. But, because of Sarah’s deep abhorrence of the practice of slavery, she cannot bring herself to rule over Handful, and instead tries to free her. When this fails, she secretly teaches her how to read; illegal at the time. Handful, at times resenting Sarah’s status as a white woman, still begrudgingly cares for her.

The Invention of Wings juxtaposes these two women’s stories, and you’re able to see how similar they are, even though their skin color is different. For example, both Sarah and Handful yearn for freedom – Sarah to be free to choose her vocation, and Handful to be free from slavery. Both women lose a parent around the same time. Both women become involved in rebellious activity. Of course, there are stark differences too. Sarah has the freedom to leave Charleston, and travels by boat to Philadelphia. Handful has to be content with just watching the boats in Charleston’s harbors and dreaming of one day leaving. Sarah, as a white woman, is considered a human being, while Handful, and all other Negros, are valued as goods.

Obviously a huge topic of this book was slavery. Kidd discusses the daily workings of a Southern estate and how slaves were used in various functions. However, she also provides, at times horrifying, detail about the punishment tactics used by whites to ensure slaves stayed in their place; e.g. whippings, the Work House treadmill, the collar/foot contraption. While these were hard to read, it is also important to be aware of these atrocities, as they are part of American history. Another subject Kidd discusses is how Sarah’s interest in the abolitionist cause naturally segued into the suffragette movement. I’m sure most of us never think of the two as so closely connected, but they were and it was interesting to learn more about how that came about, especially for Sarah. Kidd also touches on an issue that America is still dealing with today: discrimination of skin color.

” ‘It has come as a great revelation to me’, I wrote to her, ‘that abolition is different from the desire for racial equality. Color prejudice is at the bottom of everything. If it is not fixed, the plight of the Negro will continue long after abolition.’ “

How true and profound. Because that discrimination was not rooted out appropriately at the time, we are still seeing repercussions almost 200 years later.

The Invention of Wings is a beautiful and uplifting story of two women trying to fly above the worlds they live in and find freedom. More than anything, this books shows what it was like to be a woman in the 1800s, both from a black and white perspective. I absolutely loved it and could not put it down. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about American history, this is definitely a great read!

*Note about Kindle edition: I usually buy Kindle editions of books, but the reviews on Amazon were overwhelmingly negative. It seems that, since this is an Oprah Book Club book, the Kindle edition includes her notes inline, which can be very distracting. For that reason, I purchased the Hardcover edition, which did not have any notes.

I Am Livia Book Review

I Am Livia Book Cover I Am Livia
Phyllis T. Smith
Historical Fiction, Roman Empire
5/1/2014
Kindle
391

 

At a Glance

Livia Drusilla is the elder daughter of a prominent Roman senator involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Even though she displays intelligence beyond her years, she still lives in a world ruled by men and so must marry a man of her father's choosing. Livia marries Tiberius Nero, an officer in the Roman military, and settles into her life as an aristocrat. She soon meets Julius Caesar's adopted son and heir, Octavianus, and their mutual attraction and subsequent relationship sends Livia's life on a path she could not have predicted. Told against the backdrop of the struggle for the Roman Empire between Octavianus and Marc Antony, I Am Livia shows how one woman was able to influence the course of history.

My Review

I’m a big fan of historical fiction, so when I started hearing a lot of praise for I Am Livia, I knew I wanted to read it. I’m not very familiar with the founding of the Roman Empire, and I was eager to learn more about this time period. I Am Livia is unique in that it details the conflict between Octavianus (a.k.a. Tavius, the Emperor Augustus) and Marc Antony, from a woman’s perspective.

Smith begins the story with Julius Caesar’s assassination and from there describes Octavianus’ rise to power in Rome in parallel with Livia’s political marriage to Tiberius Nero. As her father was involved in Caesar’s assassination, Livia and Octavianus are on opposing sides in the ongoing Roman power struggle. As Octavianus gains influence, he begins to avenge Caesar’s death through proscriptions, a form of ancient Roman justice where normal citizens are encouraged to kill individuals deemed enemies of the state. Livia’s husband is named in one of these proscriptions, and so she, Tiberius Nero, and their son, Tiberius, must flee to Greece to avoid Octavianus’ wrath. Eventually a truce of sorts is called and they are allowed to come back to Rome.

Once back in Rome, Livia and Octavianus’ paths cross as they run in the same social circles. Both feel an intense attraction for each other, but they are also both married to other people. In fact, Livia is pregnant with her second child with Tiberius Nero, and Octavianus’ wife, Scribonia, is also pregnant. Livia is reconciled to her life with Tiberius Nero, until Octavianus steps in. He divorces Scribonia on the day she gives birth, and convinces Tiberius Nero to give Livia an amicable divorce as well. Livia and Octavianus then have a short wedding ceremony, waiting on the more elaborate version until she has given birth.

Livia is misunderstood at times, and idle gossips paint her as a manipulative shrew who has tossed her first husband aside and now controls Octavianus. However, Smith describes the private side of Livia. She stands by Octavianus’ side as he struggles to gain approval of the Roman people, as he battles against Marc Antony (husband to his own sister), and eventually consolidates power to become the first Emperor of Rome. More than that, Livia shows her shrewd intellect by learning how to play the political games of the Senate. She expertly influences Octavianus to do more for the people, including setting up public works. Her main goals are always peace for the realm and safety for her family. Livia and Octavianus’ marriage lasts for 51 years, and they experience their ups and downs during this time. They clash on decisions on how he should rule Rome. She is unable to have any children with him. But, throughout it all, their affection for each other remains and eventually Octavianus names Livia’s son, Tiberius, as his heir.

I Am Livia is an engaging read, which will serve to pique your interest to learn more about this time period. The characters come to life through Smith’s writing and I felt that under all of the power and political game-playing, this was a story about a woman who wants nothing more than to raise her children in a peaceful country. Livia is written in a way that you see her goodness and her flaws. I rooted for her in every situation – when she and Tiberius Nero are literally running for their lives in Greece, when she breaks his heart to marry Octavianus, when she tries and fails to carry a child with him to term, and her struggle to balance her husband’s military ambition with her fear of war. She wasn’t perfect, but she tried her best to make the right decisions for her people and her family.

My only complaint was that I felt the love story between Livia and Octavianus seemed to materialize too quickly. Based on Smith’s writing, they seemingly made the decision to leave their existing marriages within a matter of days, as opposed to what I’m sure was much longer in reality. I would have preferred a lengthier, more realistic, courtship. It also seemed that all obstacles, loose ends, and conflicts within Octavianus’ and Livia’s marriage were able to be resolved fairly quickly and easily. I’m sure it wasn’t all that simple.

Aside from that, I really enjoyed I Am Livia. I found myself staying up late to read one more chapter (which actually turned out to be more like five more chapters!). If you’re interested in historical fiction, or just want to read about a strong heroine who helped to shape an Empire, definitely check it out!

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